Saturday, September 15, 2007


A friend of mine once observed that there is much poetry in Catholicism. He was referring to the wealth of imagery in the Catholic Faith. This could be said also of Judaism and other Christian groups, but perhaps it is more pronounced in the Roman Catholic Church. The observation comes to mind because yesterday, September 14, was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, logically followed today, September 15, by the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows: “standing by the cross of Jesus, his mother” (Jn 19:25). The cross is probably the most utilized image in catholic liturgy.

Even before the Crucifixion of our Lord, the cross must have already been a metaphor for suffering, at least within the Roman Empire, where crucifixion was precisely the gravest penalty for crime. From the time of our Lord, however, to us, Christians, the cross has meant not just suffering, but “redemptive suffering”.

Suffering is integral to human nature, not only to our “wounded” human nature but also to our plain human nature, not least because man is spiritual soul and material body. The human body, like all matter, is destined to disintegration; hence the inexorable march towards the wrenching agony of the separation of body and soul which is death.

While Adam and Eve enjoyed freedom from suffering before the original sin, it was by way of a “preternatural gift”, i.e., a good beyond the nature of the human creature, although not beyond the nature of the totality of creation (in the same way that “immortality” is beyond human nature but “natural” to purely spiritual creatures like the angels). When they turned away from God, Adam and Eve lost all their “gifts” and could only transmit to us, their descendants, what was their “nature”, a damaged or wounded human nature at that.

The Redemption accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ brings humanity into “intimacy with God”, actualized individually by grace with the free cooperation of man. But while we now enjoy this “supernatural gift” (beyond the nature of all creatures), its definitive fulfillment for each of us, including liberation from suffering and death, would take place in eternity.

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not remove suffering from the life of man on earth. Rather, He made it the very means of salvation, of our sanctification. We must learn to unite our own sufferings with that of our Lord.

It is of course good, nay, laudable, to alleviate or remove suffering, our own and others’, in so far as suffering consists in the absence or privation of a good, as long as our action does not constitute a turning away from our ultimate good. But it is best, for the sake of that highest good, to embrace suffering. Thus, we can face with Christian cheerfulness the unavoidable setbacks and difficulties of each day. We can also actively seek opportunities for self-denial, for love of God and neighbor, in many little things that do not really harm ourselves nor inconvenience others, and which could pass unnoticed.

Suffering is an indispensable condition for our entrance into eternal happiness. “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Lk 9:23ff; cf. Mt 16:24; Lk 14:27) Thus, the Church teaches: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.” (CCC, No. 2015)

True, our Lord raised several persons from the dead, healed many sick and fed the hungry multitudes; but these must be seen as manifestations of His mercy and proofs of His Divinity, not as the inauguration of a world liberated from suffering. In fact, after feeding the five thousand men, “when Jesus perceived that they would come to take him by force and make him king, he fled again to the mountain” (Jn 6:15). Our Lord did not come to bring political or economic liberation on earth. The “messianic declaration”—“to bring good news to the poor he has sent me” (Lk 4:18) — “is to be understood mainly in a spiritual, transcendental sense” (The Navarre Bible, Note at passage). It was precisely the Jews’ materialistic and earthbound reading of this quote from the prophet Isaiah (61:1ff) which blinded them from recognizing Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Let us not be misled by parties or movements that promise to eliminate poverty, injustice, suffering, from the life of man in the world.

St. Josemaria writes: “The happiness of us poor men, even when it has supernatural motives, always leaves a bitter aftertaste. What did you expect? Here on earth, suffering is the salt of our life.” (The Way, No. 203) On the other hand, “Is it not true that, as soon as you cease to be afraid of the Cross, of what people call the cross, when you set your will to accept the Will of God, then you find happiness, and all your worries, all your sufferings, physical or moral, pass away? Truly, the Cross of Jesus is gentle and lovable. There, sorrows cease to count; there is only the joy of knowing that we are co-redeemers with Him.” (The Way of the Cross, Second Station)